Kerry heading to Mideast, looking for plan to end 2 crises

AP News
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Posted: Oct 20, 2015 4:37 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry will head overseas again on Wednesday in a bid to defuse the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence and make headway on Syria's moribund peace process. He doesn't appear to have a clear plan for either.

Kerry will spend five days in Europe and the Middle East focused on two of the most intractable conflicts. Spokesman John Kirby didn't outline which countries America's top diplomat would visit, but said he would meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Kirby didn't detail any American plan to end the unrest that erupted a month ago over the status of Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, but stressed that Kerry hoped to ultimately restart talks on a long-sought, two-state peace agreement. "What we want to see is the violence to end, for calm to be restored and for nobody to participate in actions or rhetoric that just inflame the tensions and encourages more violence," he told reporters.

Over the past month, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. Forty-six Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 25 identified by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops. An Eritrean migrant died after being shot by a security guard and beaten by a mob that mistakenly believed he was a Palestinian assailant during a deadly attack at a bus station.

Even before the violence, the U.S. had been pressing all sides to stick to a long-standing arrangement governing the hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. Jews revere it as the site of the biblical Temples. Today, it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam and a Palestinian national symbol. Under the arrangement, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site but not pray there, while Jordan remains the custodian.

Palestinians say Israel is plotting to change the status quo, which Israel denies. They point to a growing number of Jewish activists, including Israeli politicians, who seek Jewish prayer rights on the mount, and occasional Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the site. Israel says these allegations are part of an incitement campaign against Jews that is driving the violence.

Kirby endorsed the Jewish state's position on the status quo, saying it was being maintained and that all Kerry "wants to do is make sure that that maintenance continues." One idea has been to codify the rules in a written agreement, but Kirby said the secretary of state doesn't believe that is necessary, even though Kerry has repeated for days that "clarity" regarding the Temple Mount was needed.

Efforts are similarly vague in Syria, where the U.S. has failed repeatedly to convince Russia to stop supporting President Bashar Assad's government.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated the American positions on ending the four-and-a-half year civil war and creating a post-Assad government.

Assad cannot stay in power, he said, but wouldn't have to leave immediately as part of a transition. Assad cannot be part of the new transitional government, he added, but can be part of the transitional process.

Despite all the U.S. talk about political transition, Syrian peace talks have ceased. The U.S. is trying to forge a strategy with Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia — and potentially even Iran — to halt the fighting between Assad's military and moderate opposition forces, allowing all sides to concentrate on defeating the Islamic State group.

But even as Moscow discusses the possibility, it is pressing ahead with airstrikes around the country that the U.S. and others say are predominantly targeting U.S.-backed rebels and not Islamic State militants or other extremist groups. And Russia has never publicly said that Assad should leave power.